Google's Project Fi: what we do (and don't) know

With news breaking that Google is likely working on some sort of MVNO service for Nexus handsets, we've got as many new questions as we had old curiosities. Is Google sidestepping carriers and bringing a network direct to customers? Yes and no. While 'Project Fi' definitely tells us Google has something going on, we don't get a lot of the gritty details. We won't until Google wants us to know about it, either. Still, we wonder if this might just be the coolest thing to come from Google I/O this year.

What we know

Not much!

We were all able to glean a small amount of actual info from Project Fi (via the app, codenamed 'Tycho'), but what we do know is that Google is currently planning to charge us only for the data we use. If you only need a gigabyte of data, you pay for it. If you need more, Google will sell you extra gigabyte blocks as needed.

That makes it a 'pay as you go' service, but we're not getting clarification as to whether Google will have a monthly billing cycle or just let you pay as needed for data. We do know the service is meant for Nexus devices.


If you're not clear what an MVNO is (mobile virtual network operator), it's pretty simple. With Project Fi, Google would license access to various networks from mobile carriers like T-Mobile or Verizon. Once they have an agreement for access to the network, Google would in turn sell you and I plans for data. Think of it as carriers individually subletting a portion of their land to Google, and Google leasing land from anyone willing to let them have some.

As an MVNO, Google would be responsible for issuing plans to customers, and can limit who gets those plans — which is why it is believed to be Nexus-only. Buy a very-Google phone, get a very-Google mobile plan.

What Google says

No, a Google rep didn't break down and admit Project Fi was coming. Yet.

Android and Chrome chief Sundar Pichai did discuss Project Fi (or what Project Fi is said to be) in a roundabout sort of way, though. At Mobile World Congress this year, Pichai had the following to say:

We don't expect to be a network operator at scale, but you will see us announce it in the coming months, our goal here is to drive a set of innovations which we think the ecosystem will allow, and which we think will gain traction.

An MVNO service would satisfy Google being a carrier "not to scale". In the same keynote talk, Pichai also said the aim of Nexus was similar, saying they also keep Nexus scaled down on purpose. An MVNO for Nexus devices seems like a perfect arrangement, and would get Google around the tricky carrier relationships they've historically had for Nexus devices.

What we want


Project Fi, as described, is actually pretty perfect. It also suggests Google is trying to make a point to carriers, which is overdue. Going right back to Pichai's comments at MWC, he said "the core of Android, everything we do, we take an ecosystem approach – we work with partners. We've always tried to push the boundary of what's next, we've done that with hardware and software."

An MVNO for Google's own Android handset that pushes boundaries while working with partners — that's pretty much Project Fi, as described. If Google can show carriers selling blocks of data is more attractive than the tired method many of them have now (we're omitting T-Mobile because they don't really have data limits), it might have a lasting impact.

Now what

We wait.

If Project Fi is actually coming to us and not some latent work-in-progress Google abandoned long ago (to be fair, Android Police didn't endorse the validity of the rumor wholeheartedly), we think Google I/O is when we'll see it. Still, we're not 100% sold just yet.

Remember Project Silver, Google's in-store Nexus kiosk we all got excited about? Depending on who you listen to, that was either an idea that never materialized past a few in-house Google meetings or one Google had a lot of resistance from carriers with.

While we doubt Google, under the 'partnerships above all' mentality of Pichai, would meet carrier resistance with an MVNO, we're saying approach this with the right amount of levity.

If Project Fi happens as we know it, expect Nexus sales to scale upward as a result. Also expect some carriers to take notice — whether or not they react is another matter altogether.